Thursday, August 6, 2009

WR Part II: A supposedly inspiring thing INTERN will never do again

If you ever plan to attend a Writing Retreat, there are two sounds you must add to your vocal repertoire before you go. The first is the Murm: a low-frequency, appreciative, I-have-just-been-enlightened-by-the-guru rumble that starts in the back of the throat and never gets past the lips, and is invariably accompanied by a vague nod of the head. The other is the Moo, an elongated Murm which conveys disapproval and suspicion and can be used to let people know that you know that a certain Writing No-No is indeed to be despised.

Let's practice.

Poetry Instructor: I'm going to read one of my poems. Here goes: "fledged with sod, the eaglet/snarfs the guts of day"
Writing Group: *Murm*.
Poetry Instructor: Now I'm going to read another poem. Here goes: "fledged with sod, the eaglet forcefully/snarfs the guts of day." That one had an adverb in it. What do we know about adverbs?
Writing Group: *MOOOOOO.*
Poetry Instructor: But in this case, it was good, because the resonance between the f in forcefully and the f in snarfs showed rebellious artistry.
Writing Group: Oh. *Murm*.

Got it? OK, you're ready to go. Let's jump right into a 6-hour fiction-writing seminar.

Fiction Instructor: It's important to always have someone criticize your work, someone you trust and respect. Friends and family will just lie to you! OK, Who wants to read their work out loud for the group to discuss?
Participant A: This is an excerpt from my fictionalized memoir*. "Mom was filled with terrifying rage, she pressed her face violently against the glass and pounded vigorously, she was mad but didn't want to show it in front of the others. Her wild hair was a symbol of her wild heart, which I guess will never be the same again now that Dad flagrantly betrayed her."
Fiction Instructor: (pause). I'm speechless. That was breathtaking. The way you used your mother's hair to demonstrate her inner turmoil—pure mastery.
Writing Group: *Murm.*
Participant B: I just have one little comment to make about—
Writing Group: *MOOO!*
Fiction Instructor: Anyone else?

OK, OK, that was great, we learned a lot back there, but we've still got a lot of learning left to do. Let's go to a lecture on Craft. No, not like in The Craft—writing craft, silly! The other Fiction Instructor is speaking tonight.

Fiction Instructor: There is so much to say about the Craft of Writing that I don't know how I'm going to fit it all into an hour and a half. So I'm just going to start by reading you a short story of mine. It's 112 pages long.
Fiction Instructor: [...] "And Benny knew Sarah had changed his life forever. The End."
Writing Group: *MURM*.
Fiction Instructor: Whoa, time's up!
Participant A (to Participant B): That was such a great lecture.
Participant B: But she didn't even—
Participant A: (all together now!) *M...*

OK, OK, going to lectures is a lot of fun, but we're really here to write, you know, to do some serious writing. Let's all break into groups and do writing exercises, which is basically the fastest way possible of becoming a writing master.

OK, write down three adjectives that describe you, then use them to write a sentence about a spider! Then, trade your sentence with someone else and write a love letter that starts with that sentence—a love letter to an astronaut! Seriously, guys, this is how all great authors got their start.


INTERN is not an aural learner, and squirms during long discussions. She is constitutionally incapable of sitting still for more than fifteen minutes at a time, and has to be physically restrained during movies and funerals.

On the last night of the Writing Retreat there was a Panel Discussion (ooh: that came out "penal discussion" on first typing, and RIGHTLY SO) between the Instructors that lasted longer than its allotted hour-and-fifteen minute time slot.

After an hour and sixteen minutes of sweaty attention-paying with no end in sight, INTERN began to get really uncomfortable. They kept on going. An hour and twenty minutes. An hour twenty-one. At an hour and twenty-two minutes, INTERN rose abruptly, fled the building, went to the lake, did some ecstatic dancing, skinny-dipped, dried off, came back, and found out to her horror that the discussion was still going on at an hour and forty-seven minutes.

Anyone who is astonished and horrified by the fact that writers On Panel can and will keep on delivering anecdote after process-related anecdote for longer than an hour and fifteen minutes should probably not be trusted to report accurately on a Writing Retreat, since this is exactly what Writing Retreats are all about: stretching the limits of your tolerance for suffering, inanity, and self-hatred, all while telling yourself it's for the greater purpose of Writing Better, that if you stick around long enough you'll uncover the gem of advice that will launch your work into orbit. It's about not quitting five minutes before the miracle happens. Sticking with it. Cutting your adverbs.

There's a writing workshop mentality similar to the gambling mentality, and it has burned INTERN and made her paranoid. Even with a growing anxiety that the endless anecdotes and exercises at a writing retreat are a waste of time, you find yourself unable to tear yourself away from the slot machine—because you've already invested so much in the workshop, and you think maybe just maybe you're on the verge of hitting that epiphanic jackpot where an instructor gives just the nugget of wisdom you need to hear, and your writing will explode with the brilliance and inspiration you came here to find.

And then you'll be the one nodding and Murming, along with everyone else.

*Everyone at WRs seems to want to write a fictionalized memoir, which, INTERN suspects, is a euphemism for "novel about myself."


  1. I don't think I'm supposed to pee myself at work. Not sure, though. Shall have to check the guidelines.


  2. Hi Intern,

    I love your description of the approval and disapproval sounds.

    I've never been to a writing retreat, but the "lecture" which turned out to just be the instructor reading her own work sounded aggravating. i would have been mad if I'd paid to attend.

    Keep up the good work - I love your blog.

  3. Between the murming, the mooing, and the giardia, I think you've scared me off from writing retreats forever. :)

  4. Intern... you're in the company of 50+'s. MURM and MOO are results of Giardia gas and loose dentures!

    Haste yee back ;-)

  5. You know... I find this to be true about the afternoon lecture portions of my writing workshop I attended, but the class itself was way better. I think I lucked out more than you. *grin*

    I hope you didn't pay for the retreat.

  6. Bwa ha. I think if you would have taken this post just a bit further *I* would have hit the inspirational jackpot. Alas...

    And I think you should write a fictionalized memoir too--or just a regular ol' one. I'd buy it. :)

  7. INTERN, you are fookin' hilarious.

  8. You're missing something. There is no more important lesson for a writer than stretching the limits of your tolerance for suffering and self-hatred. Inanity aside, that's what we -do-.

    I've never seen a more convincing argument for writing retreats.


  9. So, you got beaver fever while you were skinny dipping?

  10. I would not do well at a writing retreat. Reasons:

    1) You can pry adverbs from my oddly stubby, violently murdered fingers.

    2) I do not write novels about myself; my novels have many, many more hot men in them than I come across in my fluorescent light-filled day job.

    3) I do not moo, preferring to quack like a duck when I need to express my disapproval.

    So to WRs I say: QUACK!

  11. I laughed through this whole blog post. Thanks. :-)

  12. i love your blog. murm.

  13. I think I'd like this Writing Retreat--but without the other writers or instructors. Just the lake (a clean one though) and unlimited coffee and maybe some Morning Glory Muffins. The rest of it would give me the heebie jeebies. But it sure is funny to read about!

  14. It's nice to have a theory proven by another's experience. What's that old saying: 'those that can't...'

    I think I'll keep my money in my pocket and just keep writing and working with other writers I've come to know and trust.

    Oh, and funny as always. Glad I found your blog - very enlightening.

    Hah! Verification word = gasporie. Is that flower petals in a bowl someone farted on?

  15. Anon: Re: Feve' of the Beave: Yes.

  16. That's too funny! I've always been curious about writing retreats but I've never been comfortable in groups like that. Sounds like I'm not missing much! Or perhaps writing retreats are a bit of a lottery - they're either goldmines or kitty litter trays! : )

  17. Ha! Priceless blog.

    What is the point of Writing Retreats anyway? Writers should never retreat.

  18. Oh my gosh! *wheezes* so funny, and sometimes, so true!

  19. *Murm.*

    I think I might start using these phrases in daily conversation.

  20. I just consulted with HOUSE... we both agree, if you skinny dipped then we have even more "portals of entry" for your current intestinal friend.

    Hmmm... I love medical mysteries!

    Haste yee back ;-)

  21. oh my gosh. I just about died laughing while I read this!

    Thank you.

  22. Two thoughts: it's we over-50s, over-60s, and some of us over-70s who have jobs and contribute in some fashion to the world.
    We have been hippies, yuppies and all other -ies so don't MOO at us!
    Second: why does "fictionalized memoir" sound familiar? Yeah, you got it right.

  23. Amen, Lucy! I love my modifiers too much. What I don't get is that there is plenty of published stuff out there that's chock full of pointless ones (*cough*TwilightSaga*cough*).

    Oh well.

    Oh, and again, Intern, you're blog is an absolute pleasure.

  24. Oh, and I love the D.F.W. title homage...

  25. The art of the "murm" should not be lightly mocked. I find murming to be the best way to avoid commenting at writing group. I usually try to make eye contact and smile warmly too. Unless it's poetry. I can't make eye contact with bad poetry.

  26. Oh, need to come to my kind of retreat instead. We sit by the lake and write and then eat chocolate. And people who make throaty little noises are thrown out.

  27. I used to be a front-rower, but after your mooing and murming, I think I'll sit by the exit from now on - just to be safe.